FIRST, FROM SWITZERLAND, CAME WORD THAT THE world’s oldest mountain guide had left the Earth. Then, from the East Coast, came reports that author and ancient mariner William F. Buckley had left the sea.
It was time to call John Goddard and see if he’d left La Canada.
I got his machine, left a message and wondered as the days passed.
But at last my line crackled with the voice of Goddard, an author, adventurer, motivational speaker, father of five and senior citizen in denial.
“It’s ridiculous to tippy-toe through life,” he said.
This is the John Goddard who, as a 15-year-old in about 1940, wrote out a list of 127 adventures he aimed to accomplish before he died. The same John Goddard who has explored the Nile, Amazon, Congo and Colorado rivers (adventures Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4), climbed Kilimanjaro and the Matterhorn (Nos. 25 and 30), learned fencing (No. 88) and high-jumped five feet (No. 99). The John Goddard whose list-making and goal-chasing were detailed in the first “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book.
Goddard, who must be in his late 70s, prefers not to specify his age. But otherwise, he’s still paying plenty of attention to numbers. In fact, he spent much of May addressing No. 5 on the big list.
Explore Yangtze River. Check.
For a week, he and his wife, Carol, plied the Yangtze’s waters between Wuhan and Chongqing as passengers aboard a 93-cabin cruise ship. This may seem a far cry from the months Goddard spent in a kayak, half a century ago, probing the 4,200-mile Nile. But it’s progress all the same.
“That’s 112 goals out of 127,” he said.
For decades, Goddard has made his living writing and talking about these goals and adventures. In a typical year, he gives 100 speeches, facing fifth-graders, college kids and corporate climbers. It’s not unusual for him to start a sentence, “You know, I asked an African chief one time ... " And his most recent book is “The Survivor: 24 Spine-Chilling Adventures on the Edge of Death” -- which prompted one Amazon.com customer reviewer to warn of “highfalutin’ chest thumping.”
Although Goddard had a hip replaced nine years ago, he’s quick to say he still loves surfing, diving and hiking. He keeps his schedule full and his home crowded with souvenirs from his travels (122 countries so far). He counts calories and hikes the neighboring hills to remain between 170 and 175 pounds, as he was at 19. And he harbors recurring thoughts of undone deeds.
He still hasn’t climbed Everest or McKinley, for instance, or explored the Niger or the Orinoco, appeared in a “Tarzan” movie, visited the moon, become a ham-radio operator, read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica or owned a cheetah. And lately, he’s been thinking more about No. 54: visiting the North and South poles -- “but they’re expensive. Something on the order of $50,000. I may need a sponsor.”
Anyway, he said, the list is really just a way of reminding himself and others that “you have to have some boundaries in life. Most people say, ‘Someday ... ' And that doesn’t mean anything.” It’s important to “write it down, and have it where you can see it every day.”
Age, Goddard said, “is only important in terms of wine and cheese.... The man who taught me hang gliding was 76 at the time.”
Still, the older, or weaker, or more distracted you get as an adventurer or athlete, the more often you have to wonder: How long can I keep this up? How will I know if it’s time to stop? And how exactly did Ulrich Inderbinen do it?
Inderbinen, who died at age 103 on June 14, was the world’s oldest mountain guide. A lifelong resident of Zermatt, in the shadow of the Matterhorn, he started guiding in his 20s, first climbers, then skiers. He built his own home in the 1930s and for seven decades did without a car or telephone or bicycle, serving on Swiss ski patrols during World War II, laboring as a carpenter, electrician and lumberjack when circumstances dictated. As European holidays and alpine adventures gained in popularity, Inderbinen supported his family through guide work alone.
When the time came, he withdrew from his life’s work the same way he climbed: one step at a time. He made his last of more than 370 Matterhorn climbs shortly before his 90th birthday. He gave up ski guiding at 95, mountain guiding at 97. He quit, the Economist reported, when he realized “he had taken 10 minutes longer than he should have done” to descend the Breithorn, a 13,600-foot peak near Zermatt. He lived another six years.
The outdoor achievements of William F. Buckley are not so towering, and his withdrawal from marine matters is not so final: He’s sold his boat. Now 78, Buckley reflects on the decision and its portent in the July/August issue of the Atlantic, gazing fondly on those summer days as a 13-year-old, when he raced a 17-foot sailboat around Lakeville Lake, Conn.
Through the decades, Buckley graduated to larger vessels (up to 60 feet) and more distant ports (including a few Atlantic crossings). By the arrival of this century, he had settled into a weekly summer relationship with his 36-footer, Patito.
But then his first mate had to bow out, and Buckley slipped into reappraisal. Eventually, the author wrote, a boater has to ask: “Is the ratio of pleasure to effort holding its own? Or is effort creeping up, pleasure down?”
Buckley’s pleasure was down. He peddled the vessel. And that decision, he wrote, “brings to mind the step yet ahead, which is giving up life itself.”
I told Goddard about Buckley and his boat, hoping it might jar loose some musings on the art of ratcheting back, the importance of understanding your capabilities, something along those lines. Instead, the great goal-setter interrupted:
“What is he asking for it?”
To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or to read his previous Wild West columns, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.